China's influence spreads to Atlantic
By Emanuele Scimia
A specter has been haunting the Western Hemisphere since mid-summer 2012, the specter of China's People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) routinely patrolling the waters of the Atlantic Ocean.
At first sight, it might seem that Beijing is truly laying the groundwork for its foothold in the Atlantic Rim. Not least, Chinese government signed a free-trade agreement with Iceland in April and PLAN vessels recently made a month-long trip in the Mediterranean Sea and Eastern Atlantic. Even so, China's strategic projection in the Atlantic is still far from becoming reality.
The whole psychodrama unfolded at the end of June 2012, when
then Chinese premier Wen Jiabao made a stopover on the Portuguese island of Terceira, in the Azores, after a four-nation visit to South America. The Azores are placed right in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean between Europe and the United States. Wen's blitz there fueled speculation that China had thrown an eye on Lajes Field, the local military air base jointly managed by Portugal and the United States.
By virtue of Lajes Air Field, Washington can control and patrol a vast portion of the Atlantic space. If Beijing were able to get its hands on this strategic outpost, it could disrupt air and sea traffic between Europe and North America, deny maritime access to the Mediterranean Sea and even threaten the US eastern coast, according to some naval experts.
The remote Portuguese air base in the Atlantic has come under increasing scrutiny from Washington following its planned cuts in military spending and strategic realignment in Asia. The Pentagon's withdrawal from Terceira would represent a problem for the government in Lisbon, since the island's economy hinges largely on the base.
China's interest in Lajes Field should be seen in this context, as well as in light of Beijing's close relationship with the debt-ridden Portugal. China has provided Lisbon with financial help over the past two years. In August 2012, Portuguese power company EDP secured a US$1.3 billion loan from China Development Bank (CDB), the first time this financial institution granted a loan to a non-Chinese company abroad - Chinese state-owned company China Three Gorges Corporation had previously bought a 21% stake in EDP from Portugal's government.
CDB will also earmark US$1.3 billion in credit for Portuguese energy grids operator REN, upon which State Grid of China has an 25% interest.
Yet another demonstration of Sino-Portuguese friendship was the five-day visit to the European country that PLAN's 13th Escort Taskforce made in April. During the stay, Chinese and Portuguese officers exchanged views on escort and anti-piracy operations in the Arabian Sea. Portugal was the fourth stop of the PLAN tour of the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean, which also comprised visits to Malta, Algeria, Morocco and France. The Chinese fleet was composed of two missile frigates and a supply ship.
Though there is no hard evidence that Lisbon has ever contemplated playing the Chinese card to keep Lajes Field alive, Washington has hedged against risks linked to an unwelcome presence on the Azores. Indeed, as early as January, then US defense secretary Leon Panetta pointed out that the United States would remain at Lajes Air Base in the future and that any reduction in military forces there would be offset by US investments to alleviate negative repercussions for local economy.
The EU has also approved a seven-year extension of Portugal's bailout repayment time, whose previous term was to run out in 2014, but it is doubtful that strategic considerations have inspired Brussels, if for no other reason than it lacks geostrategic foresight.
China's potential ability to operate in the central Atlantic is directly connected with its drive for a prominent role in the seas around the North Pole - the shortest shipping route linking China and the North Atlantic passes through an ice-free Arctic Sea.
China signed a free-trade agreement with Iceland on April 15, the first such deal between China and a European country.
Beijing aims at enhancing its self-proclaimed "near Arctic" status, and its cooperation with Reykjavik serves the purpose of exploiting in the long-term new shipping lanes while vast mineral resources wait to be tapped under the the polar region, China is also an important mining investor in Greenland, an autonomous island under the Danish crown that has full control over its natural wealth.
China's growing assertiveness around the North Pole is perceived as potentially hostile by some Arctic countries, not least by Canada and Russia. Yet, during a conference on polar shipping routes hosted by the European Parliament on March 5, many Arctic experts remarked that the region is well regulated and that risks of conflicts were overestimated. Indeed, by taking into account territorial jurisdictions and economic exclusive zones, Arctic nations already control up to 97% of mineral resources in the North Pole.
In this regard, at a meeting on May 15 in Sweden's northern town of Kiruna, China and other nations (India, Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Italy) gained permanent observer status in the Arctic Council on the grounds that they would not dispute the ownership of the five Arctic littoral states - the Arctic Council is made up of eight countries with territory above the Arctic Circle: Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Russia, Canada and the US.
While it is probable to see in the foreseeable future more Chinese military vessels sailing through the Atlantic Ocean and, why not, guarding oil tankers against pirates in the Gulf of Guinea along with the US and European navies, the suggestion of a Beijing's permanent military presence in the Western Hemisphere seems to be premature.
Inevitable resistance from the United States and North Atlantic Treaty Organization apart, China can hardly afford such a strategic overstretching, not least because it has yet to consolidate its transformation from a regional power into a continental powerhouse.
If anything, China's long-term competition in Europe is unfolding under a different scheme, for instance through purchases of Portuguese sovereign bonds, investments in exploration of untapped offshore oil reserves in north-eastern Iceland or takeover bids for Athens airport in Greece.
Public finance management, energy procurement and infrastructure upgrading: three specters that are really haunting the Euro-Atlantic space.
Emanuele Scimia is a journalist and geopolitical analyst based in Rome.